With COVID-19 sweeping the nation into a lockdown these past few months, many aspects of school have changed, especially study abroad. Education Abroad director Carolina Robinson has met with faculty, staff and University of Alabama officials all summer to discuss what study abroad will look like for 2021.
“I think I have the best job on campus, I really get to work with students and faculty to internationalize their degree,” Robinson said. “It’s something new every day. Experiencing a student learning about a new culture and coming back from traveling the world that they’ve never seen before, it’s such a fulfilling role to have.”
With the everchanging CDC guidelines, it is hard to know what to do and how to stay safe in every situation. With education abroad, there are a lot of unknowns and most likely last-minute changes.
“Study abroad is going to look quite different, as most of the world is grounded,” Robinson said. “Most universities in the U.S. kind of follow the state departments’ guidelines and guidance on international travel, so we did have a downgrading from the global alert level from back to individual countries with specific alerts on those particular countries so that was a big movement that happened.”
The difficulty of international travel has increased with America’s COVID-19 numbers rising constantly. Every country has the goal of keeping their country safe, so working with those countries might take more time than usual to set up a trip and prepare for it.
“You have to see if there is an entry test that needs to happen or is there a quarantine that needs to happen. We are just spending a lot of time reviewing and making sure we are up to date with all that information. We are hopeful that travel is going to happen in 2021 and we are planning as such because we almost plan our faculty-led programs nine months in advance anyway, so we’ve already started that process. But we are hopeful, we are hopeful that we’ll be able to go,” she said.
Faculty and staff at the University are still optimistic about traveling for the 2021 year and making those trips work for students.
“I think most of my faculty are really encouraged. I think that they are really realizing that our students need these experiences because we’ve been on such a lockdown, that we should be even more connected with each other, but also connected with different cultures,” Robinson said.
Having to make decisions about future trips that might not happen is a frustrating process, especially since there has been no release of a vaccine or cure for the virus. Not only have students across campus been concerned with the uncertainty of study abroad, but they have no idea when to start or how to prepare. Cost is something that many students are wary about without the stress of the pandemic, but now the worry is heightened.
“Do I suspect that COVID will change the cost of study abroad? Possibly,” Robinson said. “It is still unknown, but I don’t think that the margin of the costs will be so high that it’s going to force somebody to not consider traveling.”
With the preparation of study abroad, the faculty and staff communicate with companies that help with the travel, housing, school, and so on, to help better plan the cost and efficiency of the trip. Cost and schooling are all important parts of study abroad, but the travel preparation can be tricky in a time like this. Passports usually take about six weeks to process in normal times, but with the pandemic, it is taking about six months.
“There are almost a million passports backlogged because we closed down our passport processing. In the United States, we are not fully back to where we were, in terms of our processing speed. So if someone is really interested in traveling in 2021, they really need to be working on getting a passport now and expecting a passport to arrive in February, when it would normally be here next month,” Robinson said.
Studying abroad is still a great experience, even amidst a worldwide pandemic. Different cultures can expand the mind and grow an appreciation for other countries.
Carolina Robinson moved to Washington, D.C. when she was around five years old from Colombia. She started swimming for the Colombian national team at 14 years old and swam competitively through college. She attended Clemson University on a swimming scholarship and continued her education at the University of Georgia for her master’s degree. She didn’t study abroad, but she traveled frequently in Central and South America and the Caribbean for swim meets and competitions. She became accustomed to life similar to a study abroad student. Robinson would be gone for weeks on end for national meets in Cuba, Colombia, and other parts of the world.
“So while I didn’t personally study abroad, I am very familiar with the idea of leaving your family, and as a teenager going to an airport and landing into a country and kind of navigating my way around, very similar parallel experiences with some of the study abroad students and programs,” Robinson said.
Now Robinson is in her seventh year as the Education Abroad director at the university.
“Not having the most experience in national travel, what better to learn empathy and a new language or learn more about yourself, than to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. A lot of growth happens to students when they pick up from their home and spend a semester abroad,” Robinson said. “They come back and learn about where their place is in the world and learn more about themselves and what they can accomplish and what they can do. I think it is just so important and such a transformational opportunity for our students.”
Traveling abroad can mean so many things to different people, it can expand what you think you know and add such meaning to your life. Going through the motions of life can be comfortable, but getting out of your comfort zone can dramatically change your life for the better. Robinson believes that deciding to study abroad is a personal decision between a student and their family, especially now with the heightened risks.
“COVID is a unique risk that we are currently dealing with, but there are always risks in international travel, just like there are always risks in coming to a university and moving away from your home, but you can’t be away from risks. But I think everyone needs to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks on a personal note with their family,” Robinson said.
Study abroad requires time, commitment and trust, but it pays off with the unique experience students have. If study abroad sounds appealing, starting early is one of the best productive things you can do to ensure a successful trip.
“There are just so many moving parts that one of the best things that a student can do is to start early,” Robinson said. “We normally say if a student is wanting to study abroad for a semester, that you should start a year in advance and we really mean it because this isn’t going to be something that students can do just a couple of months out and decide they want to study abroad a semester. We don’t have the leniency anymore like we used to.”
Lastly, study abroad is particular to each person. It depends on the student and what the student wants in terms of sightseeing and culture diversity engagement.
“We are excited, we are hopeful, we are engaged and we are here to help,” Robinson said.